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How did the Vikings Treat the Elderly?

220px Georg Von Rosen   Oden Som Vandringsman, 1886 (Odin, The Wanderer)

One would not be remiss for thinking that the elderly were few and far between during the Viking Age. Historical estimates for the average life expectancy in Dark Ages Europe are extremely low, something around 30 years, and so the issue of the elderly and how they were treated at the time has somewhat been ignored. Recent scholarship, however, has discounted the concept of average life expectancy because it was heavily skewed by child mortality rates. We’ve since learned that once an individual made it to adulthood, they stood a fair chance of making it to their golden years. So how did the Vikings treat the elderly? How did older individuals fit into their society?

Within the Context of Viking Society

The standard unit of society in the Viking Age was the Grand Family, meaning they lived together in shared longhouses, often with multiple generations and multiple family units. One household consisted of multiple couples of husbands and wives, their children, and if alive, their parents. Hence the famous longhouses, which were capable of housing a large number of people, estimated at anywhere from 10 to 20 members of the family. This much we know about the Vikings: the elderly would have lived in-home, and would have been cared for by their immediate family. This we know from the Icelandic Sagas.

We must be cautious, however, when dealing with any one particular source on Viking society. The Icelandic sagas are useful insofar as studying Icelandic society at the end of the Viking Age, but not necessarily applicable in regards to other Scandinavians at the time. Viking Age Scandinavia was a fragmented society, and individual communities had different practices, even different deities (the Pagan Norse were Polytheistic), and so knowing how Iceland did things is far and away from understanding how the rest of Scandinavia did them.

Within the Context of Archeology

Details on how exactly the elderly were treated are difficult to come by for the simple fact that the Vikings left no written record of their daily lives. Thus, historians have had to turn to archeology to find answers. Burial mounds and buried ships across Scandinavia, and even abroad, have proven to be an invaluable boon to our understanding of the Viking Age. In them, archeologists have found tools, weapons, clothing, bones, animal remains (all referred to as grave goods) that have greatly improved our understanding of their societal structure, technology, and to some extent, their culture.

Osteoarcheology, or the study of bones, has helped paint a picture of funerary practices, as well as identify the gender and age of individuals contained in burial mounds. This has helped, in part, to demonstrate that many of the people buried did reach older age. Some remains have been found to have belonged to individuals who exceeded sixty years of age. The Oseberg Ship Burial, for example, contained the bodies of two women, one of them estimated to have been between 60 and 70 years of age, and badly afflicted with arthritis. So we know that there were people who made it to an age that we would today consider elderly, but how exactly they were treated remains somewhat of a mystery.

So, how did the Vikings treat their elderly?

It’s impossible to say for sure, but what we do know is that there were elderly members of society, and if the Icelandic sagas are any indiction, they would have lived as part of a larger family unit and been cared for by members of their immediate family. In-home care, it seems, was the only option at the time.

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